I love a good meaningful quote and always match epigraphs to my posts. (Due to page design, you don’t see them if you’re looking at individual posts on the RSS feed, but if you click out to my home page you will.) Some of my favorite reading as an undergrad took place in the cafeteria after meals, where I sat browsing through the aphorisms of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and classical Asian poets. Later I bought quote anthologies such as W.H.Auden’s The Viking Book of Aphorisms (“A Personal Selection”), George Seldes’s The Great Thoughts, and more specialized collections based on individual writers (The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain) or subjects (The Delights of Reading, by Otto Bettmann).
Something bad happened recently to the online quote site I use to find epigraphs quickly for this blog, and I realized I needed a big heavy anthology with short, pithy saying on all topics, which I could use while preparing to post. With this in mind Mrs. Churm bought me an early Christmas present of The Yale Book of Quotations, touted in the press as a volume that “takes [the] humbug out of quotations.” Editor Fred R. Shapiro has done us all a service in tracking the provenance of famous quotes such as, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” which P.T. Barnum admitted he never said. (He thought maybe he remembered saying, “The people like to be humbugged,” which has its own dangerous-sounding charm.) These corrections are good to have on record, though one might also argue that the quotations we know and those that delight us most have been revised to perfection by the drafting of time and multiple authors.
But what the Yale book made me realize is that something has changed in the conception of a book of quotations in this age of the soundbite. If you’re looking to find who said, “Livin’ in a gansta’s paradise. / Livin’ in a gangsta’s paradise,” or, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” then this big pretty hardcover on good paper, with a list price of $50 (discounted online), is your book. We took it back, and with the store credit I got Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists and The Harper Book of Quotations, Third Edition, an unpretty book on poor paper that still does a nice job in its traditional organization by theme.
I like Geary’s book for its short biographies of the aphorists, which provide context and make the authors (many of them unknown to me) interesting and sympathetic. The overall organization is odd but valuable: Geary organizes chapters according to the worldviews, one might say, of the aphorists, such as “comics, critics, and satirists” and “philosophers and theorists.” And he sometimes finds “parallel lines” that compare similar sayings from different sources.
(“Our understanding is conducted solely by means of the word…. When words deceive us, it breaks all intercourse and loosens the bonds of our polity, says Michel de Montaigne. Similarly, Ezra Pound says, “With the falsification of the word everything else is betrayed.”)
The book also has an extensive bibliography and indices for author and for theme, like traditional quote books.
(Do not, I warn you, go to Geary’s website or watch video of him in his “performances”—breathless amateur juggling—on book tour. “Success often means increase of the illusion that we can make things happen,” says Jean Toomer in Geary’s collection.)
Good quotations have the effect of koans, and I can sit dreaming over them for all of five minutes before I start crafting responses.
“It is hard to be one among many," says The Buddha.
“When one lectures to a class of 240 and begins to feel all those eyes stealing one's soul,” I reply in The Essential Aphorisms of Churm, "one should don one's reading glasses since they blur everything past the known edge of the lectern." And the dialogue between the plural and the individual continues—the best opportunity good quote books can provide.
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